by Trevor Fisher
The vote on Article 50 saw Labour officially support a viciously reactionary Tory proposal, which it had failed to amend in any way. Corbyn’s official order to vote for an unamended Article 50 undercut any future influence Labour may have on the next steps. Given that voting for a Tory measure was the complaint against Harriet Harman and the front bench in the summer of 2015 when Corbyn gained the support needed to win the leadership, this is more than a mistake. It is to repeat the mistakes of the Blairite past.
The official Labour position was to move amendments to improve the bill which would allow it to support the trigger of Article 50. While a concession was made, and this needs examination, it was not to satisfy Labour. It was to keep Tory MPs from rebelling and with the exception of Ken Clarke it succeeded. The overall effect, as the hard left Another Europe Is Possible put it, in an accurate observation
“The vote wasn’t close, because Labour voted for it despite losing all its amendments”.
The actual concession was described by AEIP, accurately but not entirely correctly, as “the government agreed that parliament will get a vote on a Brexit deal before it is concluded. This is meaningless, because when this vote happens MPs will have a gun to their heads. Either they accept the government’s deal or the UK gets no deal and crashes out of the EU anyway.”
It is true that the actual vote will be Hobson’s choice, but while May is intending to force a take it or leave it vote, but the negotiations are fraught with dangers for her if Labour gets its act together. However as Labour has voted for an unamended Article 50, Corbyn has no basis for doing this. The campaign on the negotiation has no basis for a Labour intervention as the Party voted to abandon its safeguards. The rebels however have a solid basis for objecting to what May is doing.
This is not the case for Labour peers in the Lords who cannot now move safeguards the party lost in the Commons on a Bill that Labour voted for. Labour’s only logical position was to vote against the unamended Bill as there were no safeguards for what it wanted to see in the negotiations. It was not rocket science what it had to do.
A Corbyn supporter Manuel Cortes, General Secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) put it clearly in the Guardian on 6th February. While Cortes had supported the 3 line whip to put the bill to the vote, it had to be amended. The unamended bill was unacceptable. So as he wrote “If Labour’s amendments fail, then the facts change and our Labour Party must fact that circumstance, do the right thing, and whip our MPs into voting against an unamended Tory Brexit. If they don’t, M Ps must themselves do the right thing: they must vote against it anyway”. Clive Lewis and 51 other Labour M Ps did just that.
Corbyn has put another mark against his suitability as Labour leader, and Labour’s vote for an unamended right wing bill puts the unions in a double bind. The Tories have shown they can keep their MPs in line during the attack on union rights which is to come – but while they have effectively eliminated Labour as a force for intervening in the negotiations, the rebels have the potential to become an active force against Theresa May. A take it or leave it vote is something the Tories themselves will have to vote for with a general election in the offing in 2019. But Labour does not. However Jeremy Corbyn has shown no ability to position himself to oppose the Tories in campaigning against negotiations that can go badly wrong, and this is now the dominant fact of Labour politics. Jeremy Corbyn may yet regret the week in which he marched his troops officially into the Lobbies to support Theresa May
Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007. He was a member of the Compass Executive 2007-2009